Day 5 and 10,000 ways that don’t work

I’m having to work hard to keep track of what day it is now, but it’s our last day before 2 days off, which I’m super grateful for. The second of these days is 08/08 and the completion of my 44th year on this planet. FBI/CSIS, you’re welcome. Astrologers, you are also ❤ (insights in comments plz).

Today a lot of things changed in my training sessions with Mirror. She got a hay net and an extra flake of hay in the morning. Maddy worked with her one session in the morning, and then I followed at the end of the morning rotation, so just before lunch. We worked on primarily relaxation: two steps and stop then c/t, instead of c/t for follow while walking and asking her to match a faster pace, which seemed to get her way too amped up to focus (hence the charging & wandering off behaviours). She charged away once (or twice, honestly I can’t remember) at Calibri, and walked away to drink water once for sure, but other than that she didn’t wander much. We worked on keeping her head lowered in home position (or TRM) worked on starting to weed out the head bobbing behaviour, which really varied throughout both morning and afternoon sessions. But I feel like for the next training session on Friday after the days off I’ll know better what to c/t (and what NOT to do, eg. wave the bouy wand when Mirror started to step into my space, which Maddy noticed IMMEDIATELY. I only did that once lol). I kind of love that about Maddy’s teaching style — she’s super grounded and kind and gentle and encouraging: “Do X…. YES, nice. Well done!” but she has no problem saying “Um, what did you just do there?” in a way that lets you know very clearly not to do that thing you just did. Hahaha. Sigh <3.

So, overall it was a WAY better day. I had a better sleep, although I realized through a conversation at lunch today that probably the altitude is part of the reason I haven’t been sleeping super well. Still, we had a slightly later start so I slept another half hour and didn’t feel rushed. Other than the slow and short bursts of forward movment (2-3 steps max) it was a lot of stop and stand relaxed. A bit of back up with a nice head set (head low). Some target and hold on the bridge of the nose (I didn’t do any forehead to hand). No targeting to the mat, although I’m not exactly sure why (*mental note to ask Maddy b/c pretty sure there is a reason). And ending the session with targeting/sending to the cone, then start button and neck pets. Both sides are still good for neck pets (I’d say balanced actually) but moving lower or higher on her neck from the friendly zone (middle of the neck) still brings her closer to threshold, which I’m glad I was able to see. She seems to like & want the scratches but I think I need to wait a bit before moving back on her body.

It’s so interesting to see the shift in these horses in the 5 days I’ve been observing (and in Mirror’s case, playing with) them. I feel like Mirror is definitely NOT the furthest along in the gentling process of the 6 any more, although it’s hard exactly to gauge what “furthest” even means in this process, now that I’ve stepped into it a wee little bit. So since I just started watching Brene Brown (to stretch out my QE quotient), I’m observing the different stories I’m telling myself about what I’ve experienced with Mirror over the past few days. Was the Day 4 low following the Day 3 high a necessary “reset”? I think I learned a few things about what not to do, and a few things about what to do — like, for instance, how to look for & reward relaxation. When and how to move off to ask her to follow me. Maddy’s Facebook just posted this thing which speaks pretty much exactly to this (also, what sorcery is this? why do these perfectly-timed things keep popping up exactly as I’m writing about them? it’s the Russian algorithms on Facebook, right? But now that I’m here in Colorado, I am probably on the verge of finding out that it’s actually just an alien reality TV show or something, so I’m pretty excited about that).

So I think this is what Maddy is trying to teach us here: how can humans communicate with horses in terms that the horse can understand? And using these methods with wild horses I think probably shows more clearly what does and does not work in establishing this communication as both the horse and the human work out how we are going to move around together and who sets the agenda. I think I let Mirror set it too much of the time in the first couple of days because Maddy encouraged us to take the horses up on offered behaviours. However, Mirror was probably past the stage of needing to be brought out of that super wild frightened & frozen state compared some of the other horses. The stage that follows that super wild & frightened stage probably varies depending on the horse, but for sassy & brave little souls like Mirror, I think it’s a stage in which both the human and the horse have to come to some mutual understanding about the game (which must be safe for both players).

I’m really grateful to be here learning from Maddy directly, and it feels especially cool because she’s really open about how this is a learning process for her too. She’s trying stuff out and figuring out what works best, and learning from the struggles that we’re discovering with each horse and each trainer every new day. So I guess that’s how those low days are also a gift: they push us to figure out the things we need to figure out in order to keep moving forward. We’re just like a bunch of Thomas Edisons over here finding out our 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Now it’s time for our closing ceremony of these first five days, in which I’ve decided to allow the tears to flow if they want. I’m bringing Moon’s yo-yo to place on the altar. It’s my favourite thing of his — I think about the thousands of revolutions of that battered little aluminum cylinder wound up of his energy, and when I trace my finger around the inside edge of it I feel those vibrations again. I can’t think of a better place to share & amplify that beautiful spirit <3.

Day 4: my hot shower at the end of it was the best part of this day

Day 4 was a struggle for me. I’m tired so I’ll keep this short and sweet, but I wanted to document it because disappointment and doubt are part of the process as well. I started the day a bit shaky — our morning circle brought up some emotion which I was probably still processing when we got down to the paddock for our training session, and I just couldn’t connect with Mirror. Perhaps her energy was more disorganized because mine was too, but working the reverse round pen wasn’t great — she kept wandering off disinterested and/or charging away with ears pinned at Calibri, the horse in the next pen to her while I just stood there and waited for her to come back to me (which did happen, albeit slowly and without a lot of enthusiasm). Overall, it was a big disappointing step back. We did a few things: targeting the buoy and the mat, sending to the cone, working on the back up, treat receiving mode, leading past the challenging part of the circle using the buoy and a higher rate of reinforcement, which kind of worked (in one direction, anyway). No start button and pets today — we just didn’t get there.

My second session with Mirror was worse than the first, unlike the past two days in which the morning sessions were a bit challenging/frenetic and the afternoons a little more relaxed. She was bitey and flighty, and we got nowhere so fast that Maddy suggested cutting it short, to my great relief. So I got to spend more time watching the others with their horses, which was really cool because there were a few breakthroughs and overall a solid steady progression in all the horses. Maddy worked with Mirror at the end of the day to get a feel for what was going on with her, and halfway through the session Mirror spit out a tooth (she’s 3 and I guess that’s about the time they lose their baby teeth), so that was a bit surprising and interesting and kind of funny. I’m not sure how much it explains the regression today, but we’ll see tomorrow, I guess.

And now for dinner and bed and hopefully a clean slate to start the day tomorrow on a better foot. I’m really grateful for the good vibes I got from the group to keep me going today, and also for the jet-powered hot showers I’m getting to take at the end of every day. After two months living in a trailer, my deep appreciation for a long, hot shower grows daily. Making the most of all the awesomeness here <3.

Day 3, and how horses train us too

Day 3 of the Running Wild retreat. We ended early because rain was predicted, so we went to our rainy day schedule which starts earlier to get enough training in before the afternoon rain rolls in. Breakfast was at 7:30 (which I almost slept through because I didn’t set my alarm properly) and then an 8am start to the training sessions through to lunch at 1, then another session if the rain holds off (it did, just barely). It was hard to believe this morning that it would rain — the sky was pure blue with hardly a wisp of cloud. But in mountain territory the weather moves fast. Sure enough it started clouding up and by the mid-afternoon the storm rolled in, just as we were finishing the day with a circle on Maddy’s back porch. I love those small circles to open or close each day and check in and take a moment to connect and breathe. There are rattles and songs and lovely things on an altar to catch our magic and radiate it back. The rain was just starting, with lightning both to the east and west, and as we shook our rattles and got lost in a song, the herd closest to the house (which consists of the zebras and maybe 4 or 5 other horses) started galloping together across the field as a singular, pulsing entity. I had my back to them so only caught the last moments of it as we ended the song and when the rattles and singing stopped the herd turned together and stopped their gallop too…. It made everyone laugh because how could anyone not: we were watching actual zebras running in a herd of horses in the light rain at the beginning of a storm, with the sound of the song and the rattles of the closing circle of the day carried down to them on the wind. If my 12-year-old self could see me she would literally die of happiness, which would be terribly ironic so maybe it’s a better thing not to time travel and/or look into the future with too much clarity.

So, Day 3 synopsis (if the above paragraph doesn’t cover it). I had two sessions with Mirror, both around 30 minutes. Unlike yesterday, when the time seemed to go so fast, today’s sessions were much more tiring, and both of them I ended around the 30 minute mark thinking it felt more like 45. Ha, ha. Nothing can ever stay the same. I wonder what tomorrow will be like!!

I was floating a magical high of flow and connection after my sessions with Mirror yesterday, and today I feel like she showed me a little bit of who she is and asked me to do the same. I knew she was a bit sassy and fast and full of energy, and today she kept showing me that side of her but only in smaller little bursts. Yesterday she matched my pace walking slowly or jogging a bit faster. Today she wanted to try out the game her way and made me work for connection at a walk. I made the mistake right away of looking for too much (connection, relaxation in the ears) and the rate of reinforcement dipped a bit too low at times, and then I lost her. She’d just wander off to make sure Maddy’s retired racehorse (on the other side of the fence) didn’t get too close to the water trough in the corner of the paddock. She reminded me SO much today of Mika’s personality and behaviour. A bit of impatience with me, and the need to assert every once in a while her idea of what she wanted to do. I let her set the agenda in those moments, and I think that helped a bit make up for the less than optimal rate of reinforcements in the first half of the session.

Once Maddy came to start watching and giving pointers, I picked up the rate of reinforcement with her prompts and suggestions of different things to try to make Mirror successful. That is one of the things that makes this training process such an intuitive practice — it requires you to develop a finely tuned sense of when to push for more, when to sit back and wait, or when to move on to something else (and what to move on to!). And of course the only way a person can develop both the feel and the the skills is to practice them, ideally under the wing of a thoughtful and effective teacher. Maddy is way beyond that — she’s a truly gifted teacher. And the match between me and Mirror, however accidental or synchronistic, started to blow my mind today because she showed me how much her energy and personality mirrors my Mika. Wandering off to defend the water trough like a grumpy resource guarding little b#&$^ or to visit the girls in the shade of the walk-in shed if I got too boring. Leaning into the protected contact circle to see if she can just reach that bucket of pellets. Giving a little buck that seems almost playful/joyful in that sticky corner with the water trough when we pick up her forward moving pace. The surge of energy, that bit of resistance before she softens and joins up. The impatience if the reward isn’t quite fast enough or is too small. Her showing me what she wants to do.

Although I was a bit sloppy with keeping the reinforcement up at the beginning of both sessions and she took few steps back with the start button/right side neck pets in the morning session, by the afternoon she rewarded me by not only allowing strokes on the right side of her neck, but by hitting the start button like a slot machine and almost leaning into the strokes. Reflecting on the effect of those moments of breakthrough connection (taken together with disciplining experience of having the horse wander off if you’re not doing it quite right), you have to wonder who exactly is training who….. and incidentally just as I was composing that thought, one of the participants made the first post in our facebook group:

Hahahhaha… Indeed.

Anyway, apparently we are all now operating on a herd level, both the humans and the equines, which is a pretty remarkable thing.

I think I’m starting to develop my feel for when a good thing is completely enough, so I stopped both of my sessions with Mirror today at a high point (the afternoon more than the morning) when I got tired. She probably could have kept playing, but I think less is still more right now, and yesterday was a lot — probably for both of us. Today was also a lot, but different. I feel like I connected with Mirror on a more real level, which isn’t all glitter and rainbows and happy endorphins frolicking with dolphins and mustangs. I know she’s going to make me work, and grow, and overcome the things I need to overcome in the next eight days I have with her.

Before I end this post, I want to say a quick hello and welcome to any new readers from the Mustangers group and ESPECIALLY any new readers from this amazing little herd of women I’m getting to know here. I feel so lucky to be here among you ❤ ❤ <3.

Day 2 and no apologies

Day 2 of the retreat was intense and good. The place we’re staying at continues to blow my mind, the women I’m getting to know are interesting and inspiring and hilarious and generally super cool, the horses are each SO unique that watching their training provides an overwhelming amount of information/learning, and the opportunity to apply that learning with one horse under Maddy’s careful and precise guidance — any one of these things would be amazing, but taken all together it’s truly transformative. We were warned on the first evening that we’d be undergoing an initiation through this process, and even already on Day 2 I can see the truth in that statement.

I worked with Mirror twice today, although Maddy started the day working with her so she actually got three training sessions. Mirror has the highest energy of the group and is working on some of the most advanced of the gentling behaviours, so it made sense for Maddy to start with her and demonstrate some of the behaviours we’re building towards at the same time as giving her an outlet for some of her excess energy, which made it easier for me to work with her later. Right now the two sessions are kind of blending into one another, but I’ll try to do a quick synopsis and reflection on them both. Both sessions were out of the enclosure in a larger paddock set up with what Maddy calls a reverse round pen — essentially a circle made from large traffic cones joined together with plastic poles (construction stuff bought from Home Depot). The trainer stands inside the circle and the horse is on the outside (no halters or ropes), and the cones and plastic poles provide protected contact from which to work on a variety of skills. Since Mirror has a lot of energy and is VERY motivated by the food (and easily frustrated if the rate of reinforcement goes down), we’re working on a combination of forward movement (with a little bit of backing up) and relaxation. The forward movement helps her burn off energy and allows for a good rate of reinforcement because she’s very willing to move — she even gave a couple of playful bucks (which my mare Mika also does occasionally when I actually get her lunging), and so we were working on matching pace. I got better at that in the second session with her in the afternoon, when I tried to be less focused on her (based on feedback from my first session), while varying my pace in a more exaggerated way. When I slowed down, I reeeaally emphasized the speed difference from when I picked up the pace, rewarding her for matching up with me. By the end of the second session, she was matching my pace within 2-3 strides, although I still occasionally lost her if I waited too long to find something to reward. So a few times (at least 3-4 times in the second session of the day), I lost her completely because I was waiting for her expression to soften and didn’t see it so didn’t click for too long, and she just kind of lost interest and drifted away from the reverse round pen into another part of the paddock while I had to just stand there and wait for her to decide to come back and try the game again.

So the forward movement/pace matching was pretty fun and cool, because there’s nothing really like the feeling of running (or walking) with a horse joined up with you at your side. Hellllooo endorphins. But because relaxation is also super important — especially for a motivated, high energy horse like Mirror, we interspersed the moving behaviours with the standing still behaviours: targeting the buoy (no problem), targeting her forehead to my hand (really good, holding duration now for about 3-4 seconds), TRM (treat receiving mode, holding consistently 7-10 seconds), targeting the mat (pretty good but not consistent with both front feet on the mat, and still a bit of pawing as she’s figuring out what the criteria is), and targeting the cone as start button for touch, which she’s now accepting on her neck on both the left and the right sides.

I realize that it might be boring to read about this, so feel free to skip over the training synopsis if you’re not a training/horse geek. I’m going to keep writing it all out in greater or lesser detail, though, because I know that so much of this learning will happen as I process and reflect on my sessions with Mirror. It’s amazingly helpful to have people watching and offering observations, and Maddy is an incredible teacher with that gift of knowing so intuitively when and how much to guide and when and how much to step back and let you work it out. Even though I still feel a bit awkward and clumsy at times, and I have lots of room to improve my timing and ability to keep Mirror engaged and within her optimal learning zone (not too much challenge, but enough to keep her interested), both sessions today felt like they really flowed, and left me feeling pretty amazingly energized. Horse medicine is some seriously magical stuff. I think that medicine is amplified with these wild creatures, but also with Maddy’s training methods which create this incredible feeling of connection when you find that 2-way communication and the horse you’re working with is choosing to engage in the game with you, and it’s not work but instead it’s this deeply mutually rewarding play. Such an entirely different mind set from the one that was keeping me in a permanent state of self-doubt and frustration when I was trying to work with Mika in those first couple of years and she was resisting/fighting me every step of the way.

We are keeping very detailed training logs, picking up where the first group left off, so there is a record of each horse’s training since the very first session that will accompany them when they’re adopted out (all of them except one have adopters from the first group, which is a relief to many of us who will inevitably fall in love but cannot take home another horse). Today I recorded Mirror’s 51st and 52nd training session, so she’s up to a total of 19 hours and 45 minutes of training now since July 12, although in reality she probably has a bit more than that because Maddy has been working with her as well and not all of those sessions are recorded in the log. However, since we are tracking their training hours, we need to make a note of the length of each session. I recorded the first session this morning as 15 minutes, and after the second session when I went to write the log entry I figured it had been a slightly longer session, maybe about 20 minutes… but then I checked the time and realized that it had actually been 45 minutes. Total shock — I felt like I’d been in a time warp because there’s no way it felt that long. On reflection, though, it makes sense. The training requires so much attention and focus that awareness of time literally slips away. You are just entirely absorbed into the presence of the horse — the right-nowness of the training process. I’ve never experienced something so grounding and so magical at the same time.

So if you’ve skimmed over the horsey part, this is the part of the post where I write about a totally different topic on something that I’ve though about a lot but that struck me powerfully once again after a good but hard FaceTime call with my folks & the kids. It was our first call since I left on Wednesday, and I’d been mulling over the possible consequences of dredging up the missing of the kids (on both my behalf and theirs). Au was her usual ridiculously adorable self and didn’t show any signs of distress — she is clearly having the time of her life (how could she not — they visited a kangaroo farm the other day), but Atl was another story entirely. When he first saw me on the screen he had the hugest, happiest, most fantastic smile ever which made my heart melt on the spot, but after a minute or two he figured out that I wasn’t actually there — and friends, that smile just crumbled and was replaced by a look of such absolute sadness and dismay that my melted heart instantaneously shattered into a million pieces. The saddest face ever was quickly followed by wails of distress, shock, disbelief, and utter betrayal and I knew that his little heart was breaking too, for the first time ever, because he could see me but I wasn’t there.

I broke my baby’s heart.

I know he will be completely fine, and as one friend commented, he won’t even remember this first heartbreak. But that doesn’t really lessen the agony of knowing it for me, and I realized that this is precisely one of the reasons that being a mother is such a hard, hard thing. Because the first time our babies hearts are broken is always, inevitably, when we leave them. It’s not always that dramatic, perhaps, and maybe it’s not true in ALL cases — or maybe it’s true in different ways and on different timelines for different mother/infant dyads — but I really do believe that the painful and wrenching trauma of separation that happens in greater or lesser increments from the moment those little beings come screaming out of our wombs is one of the deepest and hardest and most heart-wrenching inevitabilities of being a mother. Or an infant. So basically, being a human being — because we all experience it from one side or another.

I’ve reflected a lot on this over the years — watching in awe and amazement (and yes, grief) as my two boys grew from those completely dependent sweet babies that hardly felt like separate beings, into men — MEN!! — with lives more separate and independent and unfathomable than I ever imagined possible. I’ve reflected a lot about how this one of those slow and steady process that is almost imperceptible until you have the benefit of hindsight and the burden of nostalgia for how fast the time slipped away. If you are lucky and strong and self-aware enough, you will focus on gratitude for having had those babies and toddlers and children and youth and not on the grief that comes with the realization that you’ve lost them too. Because even if you are one of the lucky ones and you never have to suffer the death of a child at any age, parenting is necessarily an act of letting go as much as (and sometimes more than) it is a process of holding on. And that act of letting go leaves a terrain scarred with the heartache of realizing that we don’t get to keep our babies forever — that their journey to independence necessarily includes the pain of separation and longing and loss. And that, inevitably, we are the ones who first break our own children’s hearts.

So right now my heart is breaking too, not just because I saw the devastation on my baby’s face and heard his cries when he realized I wasn’t there — it’s also breaking for the 3 other babies I’ve had and had to let go of. It’s breaking because I only had 21 years with my oldest, and I will never have the solace of seeing the man he would have become. For the rest of my life I will miss the baby, and the little boy, and the incredible, beautiful young man that he was. I will live with the pain of knowing that even though I was a source of comfort and love, I was also the one who broke his heart in all of the little and big ways I had to leave him — and his brother, and his sister, and now, for the first time, the baby brother that he never met.

If at this point, dear readers and friends, you feel the need to scold me for such a depressing perspective on the inevitability of loss — an observation that perhaps clouds your sunny view of the joys and infinite blessings of being a parent — I’ll thank you to step aside and take a breath. I know (obviously) that life is multidimensional and complex, and I’m commenting on only one of an almost infinite array of experiences wrapped up in this process of having children and letting go of them enough to allow them to grow into who they are meant to be. Most of the experiences are mind-blowingly amazing & exciting & magical and all that jazz. But I’d be lying, and so would you, if we were to deny that there is a thread of loss, a shadow edge to that happiness, and you don’t have to actually lose a child to feel it. It’s there, tangled up in the mix no matter what the details actually look like in any given story.

And like any other tragedy of life, no matter how grave or how mundane, the only way to really live with it is to look at it, and consider it, and accept it in any way you can fathom. For some of us, that might mean diving into the things that give you the most joy, that keep you present enough in the moment to lose all sense of time, that keep you attuned to the mystery and magic and sheer luck of your improbable existence in this often frightening and incomprehensible world. I’m convinced that we all have lessons here, and often they are hard ones. The only way to grow through them is to let go — of expectations, grief, fear. The pain of hurting the ones we love. All the things that hold us back. That’s not to say we don’t acknowledge these things, because naming and articulating things is a powerful and necessary way to process them, understand them, and let them flow on as we flow on and our loved ones both living and dead flow on, to a destination we can’t know until we finally leave everything behind, and arrive.

Running Wild retreat Day 1 (plus the rest of the journey here)

I started blogging about the journey here yesterday, but I only got as far as the second day, when I drove from Northern City to the Lake region where I was born and raised (mostly), and where I graduated from high school, and where both of my two older children were born. It’s an area that holds a lot of my history — both family history long past & more recent, and my individual history as a girl and young woman. I love going back there. I love how much has changed, but how my memories allow me to navigate despite those changes. Since I pushed through and drove the entire 10-ish hour journey in one go, I arrived pretty late to the northern Lake region town where I was to meet my folks and hand off the kids. I found a nice dark spot on a residential street close to the Tim Hortons and set up the van, which required moving sleeping kids from car seats, moving car seats, and folding out the back bench into the bed. I’d had a late coffee to fuel my drive, so I didn’t sleep right away, but the kids went back to sleep pretty much immediately, and I savoured the night time cuddles knowing that they’d be my last for a while. In the morning we had some time to kill before meeting my folks at the shop where I left the van to get some love from our longtime VW mechanic, and after a brief and way too hot play at a nearby park, I decided to take the kids to my favourite beach to swim in the lake. It was a bit of a drive but so worth it to take them to this magical spot and jump in the cool refreshing water where ducks casually swam by looking for bread crumbs and families and boaters enjoyed the summer morning. I was both dreading the hand-off of the kids and at the same time just wanted to rip off the bandaid, so although I could have stayed there all day, we packed up and left fairly quickly, and after meeting my folks carried out operation hand-off very efficiently. My mom wanted me to stay the night but I knew it would just draw out the agony for me, so I kissed the kids goodbye in the late afternoon and headed to my cousin’s house close to the airport for the night before my 5am flight, then flew to Denver and did a bit of public transiting around to get to my couch for the night (which was actually a bed, offered by some very fine folks that had come for a horse ride with me in Mexico in May). The next day (yesterday) was an 8-hour train ride from Denver to Grand Junction (over 2 hours delayed, but WOW scenery) and then an hour and a half drive to Ridgway to the amazing place we’re staying, and meeting the small group of amazing women I’ll be spending the next two weeks working with and getting to know while we learn how to gentle wild mustangs without flooding or trauma.

Needless to say, I was a bit tired last night after arriving and having a super intense (but good) orientation and introduction. I watched a bit of Queer Eye because those guys are amazing and always make me happy, and then crashed but couldn’t quite come down enough to have a really settled or deep sleep. I think tonight will be better — I’m tired in a different kind of way, but I wanted to write before I lose the energy and will completely because there is way too much that I want to record. I’m not sure if I’ll have the energy to write every day, but I’m going to try mostly because I want to have a record that I can look back on to remind myself of this incredible experience.

Friends, I did not have huge expectations coming here but so far I’m pretty sure my mind would still have been blown even if I had. There is the location, for one. The place we’re staying is a super huge, posh house with some of the most incredible mountain views I’ve seen. It’s set up on a hillside facing the 14,150 feet (4,310 m) Mt. Sneffels, which no doubt should be called by its Indigenous name, whatever that might be — but regardless of the horrible colonized name, it is still full of the sacred magic the original people of this land honoured, and those vibrations still resonate through the landscape. From the expansive deck that stretches across the front of the house, one can see the valley below and through the trees it’s possible to catch glimpses of Maddy’s herds (one of which includes 3 zebras) in the fenced off pastures of her ranch just at the bottom of the hill.

We were matched with our mustangs last night. Unlike the first group, which spent two weeks working with the horses in late July and had drawn horses at random, Maddy & her crew decided to match us up with the horses after listening to each of our stories (there are 6 of us with very diverse levels of experience and types of background). So that in itself is pretty amazing. I was matched up with Mirror, who is one of the less shy/frightened and more outgoing. She’s VERY food motivated and energetic about the training, and also more receptive to touch than most of the other mustangs. Although we spent a lot of the day today going over the theory behind Maddy’s training methods, we each had a short session with our horses in the late afternoon, starting with Luwalla, who is the most wild of the group, and ending with Mirror, who is probably the most “advanced” in the gentling process.

Mirror this morning, wondering when she’s going to get some treats

Since we watched each horse and trainer in turn, Mirror had to watch all the other horses having their fun and games (positive reinforcement/clicker training) before we got to her at the very end. I had an easier time waiting — I learned a lot from watching everyone else! — but poor Mirror was just about going mad with anticipation by the time we got to her at the very end. I got to have a short 15 minute session with her getting used to using the target (a small bouy stuck on the end of a plastic stick) and rewarding her for following the target and for standing quiet and relaxed in treat receiving mode or TRM (head turned away to avoid mugging for treats). We also practiced targeting her forehead to my palm (so hard to NOT move my hand toward her but keep it still and let her touch me), and we used a traffic cone for the “start button,” which is a way of allowing the horse to have choice in the training process. When she targets the cone with her nose, that is the start button indicating that she’s ready for an activity/behaviour which today was giving her some “air pets” on her neck. We ended with an actual real pet on the neck which she didn’t shy away from at all.

Overall it was a pretty awesome, energizing experience, and I’m super excited for tomorrow when we’ll be working with the horses all day — and also to see how far we will be able to get in two weeks. I think she’s going to be the perfect match for me to give me the skills to go back and work with my super food-motivated mare and her crazy little 2-year old colt, who hasn’t quite clued into the positive reinforcement training quite as much as his mom, but will be my major project for this coming winter. I’m really excited to see how I can take what I’m learning back to my totally domesticated equines to build the trust and relationship I want with them. This way of approaching horses, with so much respect and understanding, but also with the clarity and communication of a robust yet flexible set of training principles allowing the horse to build necessary skills without flooding or trauma — it’s honestly kind of mind blowing, and I’m so grateful to have found Maddy and to actually be here learning from her in person.

Folks, friends, readers — I’m also grateful that you’re following along with me on this journey. I’m especially grateful for those of you who contributed to my Gofundme to help get me here, and most of all for one person who made the incredibly generous and decisive contribution that allowed me to put down the deposit early on in my fundraising efforts. Without that contribution, I would have had to figure out what to do with a failed fundraising campaign, which would have really sucked. I’m also really grateful for my Grannie, who passed away this spring at the age of 94 after a wonderful long and full life. Although I was well aware that she never much approved of me, she loved my kids and she was as kind to me as she was able to be. She also remembers each of her grandchildren in her will with a small inheritance — which happened to be exactly the amount I needed to pay the balance of the retreat fees. My parents were pivotal in making it all happen — they fronted the inheritance money (these things take time) and offered to take the kids for the two weeks I’m away. And of course, my love & gratitude for L grows daily. Although it’s usually a courtesy to at minimum inform your life partner of big things that inevitably affect them, I never sat him down to talk it over or ask his permission (not that I really need it, but), and despite that he’s been 100% supportive of me taking off and doing this thing that he only partly understands, and spending money that could have gone towards paying some debt or doing something for the family when we really still are just barely scraping by. If you knew how hard that man works every day to support our family, you’d understand what an enormous sacrifice he’s accepted to allow me to do this kind of illogical and strange thing entirely for myself, and without a wisp of resentment. I know exactly how lucky I am.

And with that, I’m going to lull myself to sleep in the company of my favourite gay TV celebrity quintet. Peace out, folks.

Post-Day-1 bliss: taking a minute to soak it alllllll in….

On travelling, boredom, and the best knock-knock joke ever

Two and a half weeks since my last post feels like a lifetime. I’m in Union Station in Denver waiting for my train to Grand Junction, which has been delayed almost two hours. I’m on my way to the Running Wild retreat, which starts tomorrow. I’ve been travelling since Sunday night, when L drove the kids & I to Northern City to pick up Clover, who had been parked for almost 2 years in a corner of the back yard of our rented out house and miraculously needed nothing more than a new battery to get running. That van. So many memories, so much love in that little green & rust tin can with wheels.

L helped me get the van packed & ready on Monday morning for my journey south with the kids, then we both drove off in different directions — him west and back to work, me & the kids south to meet my folks. I thought I’d probably break up the trip and spend the night somewhere along the road, but the kids were champions pretty much the whole way — I let them snack (and throw popcorn everywhere) and draw on themselves and their toys with permanent markers and highlighters that I was too distracted to notice Au had packed when we grabbed stuff from our storage. We played “I spy with my little mind” which is a kind of hybrid made-up game halfway between 20 questions and I spy. We told knock-knock jokes — or rather, one knock-knock joke (the only one I know):

Me: Knock, knock. Au: Who’s there? Me: banana. Au: Banana who? Me: Knock, knock. Au: Who’s there? Me: banana. Au: Banana who? [REPEAT X TIMES, THEN] Me: Knock, knock. Au: Who’s there? Me: Orange. Au: Orange who? Me: Orange you glad I didn’t say banana? [UNCONTROLLABLE LAUGHTER, 100% of the time]

I probably told that joke ten times, and Au told it back to me a few times too, with random fruit inserted and no punchline. I wish I knew more knock-knock jokes (insert your favourites in the comments please!), but it was also kind of hilarious how hilarious Au found that joke every single time I told it (I kept drawing it out with more and more bananas every time, which in itself was completely hilarious), so I’m convinced that it is pretty much the best joke ever. It certainly cracked me up as much as it cracked her up, although for different reasons.

All told, my first long(ish) road trip with the kids in the van went really well. Atl slept a lot, and Au squirmed a lot and whined a bit, but one of the many excellent features of a 1983 Westfalia is that the back seat is a fair distance from the front seats, and plus that little workhorse of an engine is in the back, so what with the distance and the engine noise and the considerable wind noise (increased due to the fact that the heater is ALWAYS blowing hot air and can’t be shut off, so the driver’s window must be kept open unless it’s freezing out), the auditory irritation of the whining is significantly diminished by all the other noise, and if you happen also to be passing through an area with radio reception, well. It’s pretty manageable, actually. Almost painless.

In case anyone is wondering why I don’t just stick a tablet in front of the kid, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to rely on screens as a babysitting crutch. That’s not to say I don’t do it — when I have no childcare, I am in the habit of letting Au watch Netflix during Atl’s afternoon naps to give me a minute to catch my breath and/or check email and maybe get a bit of work done. But I’ve noticed that when I use it too much — say I have some stuff that I absolutely need to get done, or I’m just too tired and overwhelmed and defeated and I cave to the whining — the effect on her attitude and behaviour and overall emotional state is DRASTIC. I’ve also noticed that when I limit (or even occasionally eliminate) her daily screen time, she struggles to figure out what to do with herself but eventually figures it out — and I’m convinced that the cycle of struggle/boredom and then solution (figuring out something to do) is a critical life skill that we deprive our kids of when we constantly entertain them (or provide devices to entertain them). Because life is not about being entertained. Boredom is healthy. Being left alone to figure out what to do is healthy. Learning to stare out the window and look at the scenery and think your own thoughts on a long journey — these are all healthy, necessary skills that kids won’t learn or develop unless they are given the opportunity. And as a parent, giving them the opportunity to be bored, to not be entertained, to struggle with the very real struggle of what to do — it is hard (mainly because of the whining), but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s necessary for their development and mental health. I think it builds resilience and resourcefulness. And I see the marked difference when I do the hard thing and say “no” to screen time.

So I was okay letting Au be bored and whiny for as long as she needed to on this trip. It was really hard for her for the first few hours, but she settled into the reality of it fairly quickly and the rest of the journey was relatively painless. She looked out the window and occupied herself (not only colouring her Sky stuffie and all of her fingernails and toenails with permanent marker, but also drawing a “TV” on the little wooden box she’d found in the storage shed and filled with random toys and markers). And I’m going to keep letting her be bored and figure it out on her own as much as I can handle because I think (hope) it will help her develop in a good and healthy way.

And now the train is boarding, so I’m posting this and will (hopefully) keep writing on the train ride to Grand Junction. I’m going on a train! So exciting!!

the mundane and the magic

It’s 7:40 am. I’m sitting in the front seat of the truck beside the train tracks in a tiny town on highway 16, further west than I’ve been before by a good 2 hr drive (hauling the trailer). I’m waiting for the grocery store to open at 9. I’m listening to CBC radio and there’s still some heat in the truck, though it’s going to be gone soon. There is a train passing by. It came just as I started writing and I think it will be passing for a while because the second engine just passed by and I’m six lines into this post already. I’m parked as close as I could figure how to the only café I could see in my slow drive through town after dropping L off with his crew at the motel. There’s no internet here so I’ve just re-read all my half started posts, plus some diary entries I have sitting on my desktop. And the train ended. A 10-line train.

We realized last night that I’d have to drive L to work this morning if I wanted to be able to go grocery shopping today. Yesterday he drove the truck into town to meet the crew for the first day of this contract and just left it at the motel where they meet while I stayed at the RV park with the kids doing laundry & setting up. We did a decent shop on our way here on Sunday so we had enough food to get through the day, but there are a few key things we didn’t pick up that I wanted to get in town. So this morning I got up with L & even though I REALLY enjoy my long lazy mornings waking up late with the kids, there is something about being up early that is SO GOOD.

We’re at an RV park a good 15 minute drive from town. I maybe could have asked the babysitter (who drove her own car here with her younger sister) to give me a ride in her car but I didn’t really want to. She’s a good enough driver, but having that drive alone with L in the early morning, and some time to myself before the grocery stores opens is kind of dreamy. I should probably try to come to town and work every day, but not with diesel running around 130 cents a litre and this beast of a truck. Which this morning, L drove a bit like a racecar on the ride into and then through town, through some pretty good fog for the last bit of it, to the point where I was literally clutching my chest and pointing out that we don’t have a will nor decent life insurance in place yet so we CANNOT both die. We made it just 5 minutes late, and he jumped out of the truck still running to grab his stuff and I jumped out to move the truck out of the way and said “have a good day” and he said “love you too” and then I pulled back out onto the foggy highway to drive (way more) slowly through town to check what time the grocery store opens and find out if there’s a coffee shop open somewhere (no).

So here I am, sitting in the truck close to the only coffee shop I could see in town, only I’m on the street behind it so I can’t see when it actually opens. That’s okay. I like my truck office, and the view right now is good. A railway track stretches out through the grass and brush to the left and the right and I’m sitting cross legged in the drivers seat, which pushes back just enough to fit my computer on my lap. Across the tracks there’s a long low white building with a faded & rusted blue tin roof, a chain link and barbed wire enclosed yard, a couple of small paned windows with rock holes, overgrown brush: young ash & alders and maybe some berry bushes, though it’s too early in the season to see any berries.

On my drive through town the Tragically Hip was playing. I was alone for the first time in a little while, and that combined with an empty early morning parking lot in the fog and a slow crawl on the highway through the town with only the guys in work trucks heading to A&W for their drive-thru breakfast and maybe one or two through-travellers on the road: how could I not cry? Luckily I have zero fucks left, so I just cry even though I will probably have to go into a public place soon. But I will delay my entry into public as long as possible, obviously, because these moments of being alone enough to let go are too rare for me right now, and I need it.

Here comes another train. I can’t see it yet but I can hear the horn. I wonder how many lines long this one will be. Two engines on the front. It’s passing now and I’m not looking because it’s too close and too fast and too long and the motion will hurt my eyes, so I look down at the computer in my lap. Obviously my measure of how long the train is in lines of text I’m typing isn’t a perfectly scientific measure of length, but it’s better than trying to count the cars like L likes to do. And by better, I mean it’s less likely that I will lose count and/or interest well before we hit 30. This train has so many more cars than that, all of them full of coal, which I can see piled up in the open top containers. Either I typed a lot more slowly (possible) or that was a shorter train (I’d estimate about an 8-liner). I didn’t notice if it had an engine in the middle.

And it’s after 8am now so I think the coffee shop might be open. I’ve been drinking the coffee I brought with me that L made this morning, but I think I will go buy something and grab some internet to post this and check my email. Hopefully the internet signal will reach to the truck so this can become my new office. I like it here out behind the coffee shop with the trains and the tracks and the white building with the blue tin roof and the blue sky.

I need to think of what to do with the unfinished posts and diary. Post them all? It’s mundane but also a good reminder of where I’ve been in all those points where I’ve managed to touch down with words on the screen. Like little anchor points. Cross stitches in time. Notes to remind myself so I can look back and say, ah yes. There I was. I’d forgotten.

Because I know that if I don’t write it down I will forget the details, and for some reason the details seem significant—even (especially) the most mundane: the rushed drive with L slightly late for work, the morning sun making all the colours seem brighter and newer. Blue lake, green fields, dark grey road shining wet with dew, then the white fog blanketing everything as we cross the bridge into town like we’ve entered a small town dreamscape. Realizing that “have a good day” and “I love you” mean basically the same thing in context with your beloved, even if you forget to kiss or touch hands before leaving for the day. Songs on the radio that hook you in the gut & rip you open just enough for the tears to flow like blood. Like water. Like the pulse and throb of a train full of coal trucks passing by.

The dog is starting to get restless in his crate in the back of the truck. He’s sick from a change of food and I need to get him out for a little walk. I need to check my email and get groceries. Crying is good, magical even, but now I need to dry my tears and smooth the sadness down just enough to get it done today.

Here we go <3.

So.many.updates

That room pictured in the last post? I am in it again, happy day! This time, papa took the kids to visit a friend and drop off some freshly-made adobada sauce, and I stayed home at the trailer to work. Also, the trailer pictured out my dinette/work desk window has been hauled away, after an afternoon with several overly-face-and-neck-tattooed people showing up, followed by a night of many loud vehicles coming & going, and a full-on crazy fight inside the trailer this morning as we ate our breakfast at said dinette. We left to run some errands after breakfast, and when we came back early this afternoon, the trailer was gone. As I write this, it looks like the second long-term trailer parked in the site beside us is being looted and/or packed up to move. Never a dull moment at the trailer park.

Anyway, my radio silence of the last couple of weeks is because I’ve been SLAMMED with work. I know, it’s a good problem to have. It’s a little bit less of a good problem when you don’t have a super awesome and/or reliable child care situation, but I’m figuring it out. And by figuring it out, I mean that I’ve hired the younger sister of the nanny of my sweet friend (because once she was off work and home packing her house to move next month, and her oldest home from school, my little dream situation came to its natural end) and now I have this lovely 19-year old girl coming to the trailer so I can work on my laptop while running away from the demanding oldest child–a situation which has seen me working in the cab of the truck several times while drama queen daughter stages a level 10 tantrum because I didn’t get her the things on the list she made (which included, for reference, the following totally reasonable things to put on a shopping list:

Basket
lip stick
biscuits
chair
tree
big castle
door
princess clothes and bed
heels
real dog
sparkly dress
sparkly shoes
nail polish
mirror
makeup.)

Luckily the weather has been super crap lately so I’m not boiling myself alive while trying to find some place where I can shut out the screaming/demands while I let the new babysitter figure it out. So far, she’s doing a pretty good job, considering. Good thing, because I don’t really have time to help her out because deadlines.

So work has been good. It will be better when I actually have time to submit my hours and get paid. That little detail is high on my list this week.

In other news, we are moving about 300km west to a small (tiny) village on a lake. I’ve never been west of this northern city, unbelievably, so I’m excited to see a new part of the north. I’ve been checking out the RV park online, and it is right on the lake and looks gorg, and quite a bit less sketchy than our current location (*hopes and prayers*). I’ll be there for a bit more than two weeks before starting the long journey south to meet my folks and drop off the kids, and then more south, ALONE–omg what even IS that??– for the Running Wild retreat.

Which reminds me of another bit of exciting news: baby boy is officially, fully weaned–over a week now!! And my boobs almost don’t hurt any more. And we also got rid of our queen mattress on the sagging, crappy base and replaced it with a new, actually flat and not sagging (!!) base and a new (KING SIZED!!) foam mattress, which I love so much it’s hard to explain how or why I can love a mattress/bed that much. Honestly, combined with the black-out curtains I made (including one for the skylight, because my technical skills with a sewing machine and fabric scraps apparently know no bounds), and some beautiful sheets my friend gifted in exchange for the queen mattress (which is really quite nice, especially if you had an actually functioning base under it)–I want to marry my trailer bedroom and live there forever, because it is that awesome. I love snuggling with my babies AND having enough room to get away from them and get comfy. If you are dedicated co-sleepers like we are, king sized is the only reasonable option.

Before we all get too excited about sleeping through the night or anything, THAT still hasn’t quite happened yet. Baby boy doesn’t demand night boob any more (oh sweet relief), but he’s not quite at the solid 10-12 hour sleep like his big sis quite yet. But it’s coming. Plus, I have 2 weeks of solo sleeping coming up to look forward to. I mean, obviously I’m looking forward to so much more than just the sleep potential of this trip, but I’d be totally lying if I said that it wasn’t in the top 5 of things I’m about which I’m currently Very Excited. But papa & crew just got home, so the top 5 will have to wait…

a room of one’s own

It may come as little shock to any of my long term readers and/or real life friends that I have a love affair with my daily planner (I used to be faithful to Moleskin, but my affections have wandered to a cheaper/more generic weekly hardcover) and I keep fairly detailed notes on what’s happening in my life — both planning out the happenings in advance, but also recording the things that actually happen (which usually involves crossing out a lot of things that I planned but didn’t get done). So I know at a glance that this is week 4 up north, and it’s also my first week with child care — which means that for the first time in more than a month, I’m logging some actual paid work hours (as opposed to the unpaid, never-ending work of caring for a family).

Pictured above is today’s office in the trailer because my man has the day off and decided to take the kids park-hopping. But the rest of the week (and for the next month or so, fingers crossed), I’ll be working behind the closed door of the guest room of a sweet friend who offered to nanny-share in her home. We’ve had two days with the nanny so far, and it’s really the most perfect child care situation I could imagine for right now. The kids are happy playing with a close friend we’ve known since birth, the nanny is a gentle & sweet young woman, and the guest room is a perfect place to sit by the window with a view of the cauldesac below, where I can leave the truck parked in the shade with the dog kennels in the back so as to scold the hounds if they start barking at the mail delivery person. And even though it’s just a few hours a day, for just four days a week, I am so enormously grateful for the time and space to work.

Being as minimalistic & mobile as we are, the idea of a room of my own is a bit far-fetched. In Mexico I have a tiny palapa on our roof, and it’s amazing (although I’m looking forward to the day I have stairs instead of a rickety aluminum ladder). Up north I have wherever I can set up my laptop and spread out my materials — and honestly, it’s totally adequate. The key thing, and the biggest challenge, is the child care. I know the struggle is only a few short years, but those short years can be hella hard for a person needing to earn some dollar bills. For real, if I didn’t have the amazing luck to have this fantastic and generous friend, I would be crying a sad, sad tune right now as I turned down a contract that I really, really need.

But happy day!! I *am* that lucky, so here I am with a trailer/guest room of my own and time to work. I hope to squeeze in a bit more blogging too, since there are updates and things about how I’m GOING TO COLORADO IN 6 WEEKS OMG OMG OMG. I’m still reeling that it happened/is happening/holy shit/I’m so freaking excited. On the docket of things I might or might not write about: still raising money but need to update my budget/keep hustling, weaning is hard, my parents are keeping the kids for the 2 weeks I’m away so I will get to sleep through the night maybe for the first time in like 100 years, why is my husband so incredibly handsome & generally awesome? (a rhetorical question), why cloth diapers and wool covers make me so happy even though the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyways, and how I finally watched Bird Box and my husband lost his crush on Sandra Bullock (spoiler alert: too much yelling and many unanswered questions). Peace out.

the poop, the bad & the ugly

I promised (or threatened, you decide) poop in my very first post on this site, and I am not here to disappoint. With two small children (one still in cloth diapers), two dogs, and, for the half of year I’m in Mexico anyways, a horse or two in the back yard, a significant portion of my daily life revolves around poop management. I try not to brag about it too much–I don’t need everyone getting all jealous & stuff.

For the most part, I have my systems working well. The horse manure gets composted to build up my garden soil. The dog poop gets tossed because I haven’t gotten around to building a composter (a large garbage pail with the bottom cut out & holes drilled up the sides, buried up to the rim in an unused corner of the back yard works surprisingly well). And as far as the baby goes… Well, to be totally honest, I’m really most proud of my poop management skills in this area.

I’ve been a committed user of cloth diapers for almost all of my 4 babies’ first two years of life. I’m really proud of the effort and determination to keep as many diapers as possible out of the landfill as I possibly can, because it is not a walk in the park to use cloth diapers. Like a lot of other types of ethical convictions, the commitment to avoid disposable diapers as much as is humanly possible takes hella grit & gumption, and no small amount of lifestyle adaptation. Literally, my life 95% revolves around diapering–not just washing & folding (I use primarily flat diapers for the ease of washing/drying and better fit), but also much more frequent checking and changing because unlike disposable diapers, you need to change after every pee. For most babies, that’s like 8-10 changes a day, minimum.

Which is where elimination communication comes in. You can google it if you want, but basically it’s an approach to managing infant toileting that uses a cue word or sound and frequent potty opportunities (“pottitunities,” of course) to work with an infant’s natural, instinctual impulse to not soil itself. This approach is practiced in most parts of the world where Western-style diapering is not the norm, and was likely practiced in Western cultures too, before disposable culture took over and all that knowledge was forgotten. Anyway, here we are in the 21st century trying to re-learn it all again and making it all granola-mama fancy with the name “elimination communication” when it’s really just the most basic common sense ever: don’t train your baby to sit in its own waste. If given the opportunity, babies will eliminate on cue from birth.

It’s really quite amazing, actually. I didn’t learn about this super-hippy crunchy mama thing until my 3rd baby was about 4 months old, and even with this late start she totally caught on. And with baby #4, well. I was on it from the first 24 hours–and successful enough that for the last 15 months, poopy diapers have been a relatively rare occurrence. And when you are using exclusively cloth diapers, that is a big freaking deal, because washing out a poopy diaper…. It is really not fun.

Unfortunately, there’s this thing called “potty strikes,” which often coincide with big developmental milestones, especially around mobility, but also with significant life changes. And in the last week and a half, we’ve had a pretty significant life change (moving countries), plus baby boy has just learned to walk. With all the travel and upheaval, we had about a week and a half with mainly disposables, but once we started to get settled down I transitioned back to cloth, along with the potty we had in storage up here which is quite a bit different from the one baby boy is used to. Of course, we’ve gone through an epic potty strike (refusing to sit, getting off & doing business on the floor, poopy diapers galore…). It has been exhausting. And gross. And so, so frustrating.

But tonight, finally, a breakthrough. Sitting contentedly instead of screaming and writhing to get off. The first successful #2 in the potty since before we left Mexico. Finally, some light at the end of the poopy tunnel! That is, until Lil Big Sister, in a fit of careless silliness, upended the pot and turned a success into a big messy failure…

I needed to take a long walk after that one, and reflect a bit on how it’s okay to be tired and a bit depressed because the last couple of weeks have been a lot to handle, and big changes are tough at the best of times. We’ve been so lucky to have some amazing friends help us along the journey from there to here, including one person who drove for 20+ hours return trip to help us get the dogs on the last leg of the journey, not to mention the friends who let us store our trailer on their property and put up with us for a week after we landed and got stuff sorted, and the friend who took time out of his one day off to help us get the trailer into the shop after our truck broke down on the morning of our appointment. I’ve been feeling a lot of gratitude for all of the good & giving people in our circle.

And there’s other good news, too. Despite the fact that I’ve only made it halfway to my fundraising goal, I was miraculously able to pay the remaining fees on the horse training retreat thanks to a small inheritance from my Grannie that I just found out about days before the payment deadline. I’m still kind of shocked and stunned that it all fell into place just in the nick of time when it looked like such a completely lost cause… and also just a little bit panicked about how I’m going to make it all work with two kids and two dogs in tow (plus the cost of travelling there and back…).

But right now all the impossible details need to take a bit of a back seat while I catch my breath. I have a whole new daily routine to work out, and I’m not quite there yet. Right now it’s hard to see past the poop, but I know with a bit of patience we’ll all get through this adjustment eventually and settle into an easier, more contented place and pace. Baby steps are just where we’re at right now, both literally and figuratively, so I’m slowing right down to take it all in. Thanks for sticking with me <3.